The pace at which the provinces have so far moved to align their policies, development planning and budget allocations with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been painfully slow and patchy.
But the good news is that the provinces where the global goals are to be actually executed are said to have made significant progress on developing provincial SDG frameworks, establishing baseline targets, resetting priorities and mobilising academia, civil society and administrative departments.
The stage is almost ready for mainstreaming the 2030 Agenda in public policy, development planning and provincial budgets, as well as acceleration of its execution with financial and technical support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other UN agencies. The level of political ownership of the SDGs varies from province to province just as the level of preparedness on the agenda implementation. But it is believed to be much higher than what we saw for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Financing, capacity gaps render efforts futile
The provinces are the main stakeholders in the execution of the goals as the last National Finance Commission (NFC) award transferred a major share from the national financial resources to them and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution devolved most functions related to the SDGs down to the federating units. At least 72 per cent of the SDG-related functions now fall in the purview of the provinces and 24pc in the joint purview of the federation and the provinces. The remaining 4pc are to be tackled at the global level.
“The provinces have the main role to play in the planning and implementation of the SDGs,” Shahid Farooq, project manager at the SDG Unit in Punjab, asserts. “The annual development programme (ADP) of a province is the major source of financing for the SDGs. The alignment of the provincial development spending with the global goals is the key to the successful implementation of the development agenda,” he argues.
But will the provinces succeed in executing the agenda and meet the targets by 2020? “Broadly speaking, the SDGs represent major development challenges and cover social, economic and environmental sides of development policies. The agenda allows governments a lot of flexibility to sign up for any number of the 17 targets and 241 indicators by ‘localising and prioritising’ them according to their administrative and financial capacity and needs,” explains Mumtaz Ali, who looks after the SDGs Unit in Sindh.
“The progress on the SDGs is to be judged by a country’s commitment and ability to undertake policy, institutional and governance reforms and not by the achievement of the targets by 2030. It represents a constant movement. It doesn’t really matter whether you can achieve a particular target (in a given timeframe) as long as you’re moving in that direction. And I think we have started the journey,” he adds.
Conversations with the SDG focal persons in the four provinces highlight a number of issues and impediments that can stall or retard progress on the SDG agenda. Most important among these handicaps is the acute shortage of funds. Sindh, for example, requires an investment of at least Rs100 billion a year until 2030 to attain the target of clean water and sanitation facilities for its entire population against a total development allocation of less than Rs300bn for the ongoing fiscal year. The same is the case with the rest of Pakistan.
The bureaucracy lacks skills for SDG-based reporting and tracking the expenditure
“SDGs are an ambitious agenda in the sense that they call for governments, particularly in developing countries, to mobilise and invest considerable amounts of funds on sustainable social and economic development and environmental sustainability. Given our severe resource constraints and a fragile economy, financing is one of the biggest challenges the provinces face in the context of delivering on the SDGs,” underlines Zulfiqar Durrani, the SDG focal person in Balochistan.
Another major challenge facing policymakers is the unavailability of authentic, disaggregated data (on the basis of gender, age, income, wealth and so on) on SDG indicators, essential for planning, resource allocation, monitoring and planning. In some areas, data is available for only 5pc of the indicators. Efforts are, however, being made at the federal and provincial levels to close data gaps for improved collection and reporting at all the levels. But that will be a while before a clear picture emerges as to where we stand and where we want to go and how.
Another major challenge that the provinces face is the poor quality of administrative capacity in development policymaking, project planning and resource allocation. The bureaucracy also lacks skills for SDG-based reporting and tracking and monitoring the expenditure. In many places, especially in Balochistan, security constraints are another impediment to progress on the SGDs.
According to Sabir Ali, who heads the SDG Unit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the SDGs require more integrated efforts than mere allocations of funds. Even a little improvement in governance can produce such results that no amount of money can do, he says. “The SDGs are interconnected. The policy and financial interventions in one area can have a significant impact on other targets. Thus, we need to adopt an integrated approach towards the SDGs for creating a holistic impact and all stakeholders — the government, civil society, academia, media, parliamentarians and the private sector — must work closely for greater coverage and positive impact of the efforts.”
An important theme that emerges from conversations with the provincial SDG focal persons relates to the role of local governments in delivering the SDG goals. There is a broad consensus that strong, more responsive local governments can be a lot more effective in prudent and efficient use of whatever financial resources are available for implementing the development agenda as is shown by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa experience. But that requires financially and administratively powerful local governments that most politicians abhor to have.
The implementation of the SDGs brings both challenges and opportunities in the given circumstances when resources are scarce, the economy flagging, and institutional and administrative capacity weak and defective. The situation is challenging in the sense that the gaps are huge and appear difficult to close. But if the provinces are able to review and reform their policies, planning structure, strategies and laws and regulations, and make them responsive to and align them with the SDGs, the chances are they will successfully begin their journey towards a sustainable and inclusive economic growth.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 23rd, 2019